[WORLD CUP 2014 QUALIFYING: Europe]
There are just a few certainties surrounding the four European playoffs that begin Friday with the first of two legs. Either
or Zlatan Ibrahimovic
won't be going to the World Cup. French players love to feud. And tiny Iceland
is hosting the biggest game in its history. PORTUGAL-SWEDEN.
Ronaldo and Ibra could not be hotter. Both players scored hat
tricks over the weekend, and in their last seven games, Ronaldo has 13 goals, Ibra 12.
Ronaldo has 27 goals in 19 games for Real Madrid and Portugal since the start of the new season.
Portugal coach Paulo Bento
kept him out of practice earlier in the week but he is expected to start Friday in Lisbon. He was part of the Portuguese team that
won playoffs in 2009 and 2011 to advance to the World Cup and European Championship, respectively.
At 28, Ronaldo may have one more World Cup after this in him, but this may be the end
of the line for Ibrahimovic, who is four years older. Ibra was a reserve on Sweden's 2002 World Cup and played but didn't score at the 2006 World Cup. Sweden didn't qualify for the 2010 World Cup. FRANCE-UKRAINE.
Former national team captain Didier Deschamps
is the third French coach in three years, and his
main task is keeping harmony within the team. Patrice Evra
, captain of the 2010 team that went on strike following the dismissal of striker Nicolas Anelka
, was retained despite recently lashing out at the media, calling the country's main television and radio pundits "tramps."
Star Franck Ribery
, in line for the Ballon d'Or after helping Bayern Munich win the Champions League, tried to brawl with former national team coach (and Red Bulls
executive) Gerard Houllier
when they crossed paths recently after Houllier was quoted as saying Ribery wasn't "a world-class player who's going to make the team
win like Lionel Messi
or Cristiano Ronaldo
French federation president Noel Le Graet
ripped Real Madrid star Karim Benzema
for going 15 games without a goal for France: "He is very disappointing. A starter at Real
Madrid can’t be as bad as people say. We expect more." Benzema's response: he wasn't terrible.
Throw in enfant terrible Samir Nasri
suspended after Euro 2012 for cursing a reporter, and the French remain very volatile. ICELAND-CROATIA.
Iceland (population: 320,000) will be the
smallest country ever to play in the World Cup if it gets past Croatia. Aron Johannsson
opted to switch allegiances and play for the USA, where he
was born, but Iceland is loaded with young attacking talent like Kolbeinn Sigthorsson
of Ajax, and Alfred Finnbogason
the top scorer in the Eredivisie with Heerenveen. Midfielders include Johann Gudmundsson
, who plays with Johannsson at AZ, Aron
of Cardiff City and Gylfi Sigurdsson
. None is older than 24.
The game will be played at the 10,000-seat Laugardalsvollur, but
Iceland could have filled the stadium three times over. One uncertainty is the weather. Snow is in the forecast. GREECE-ROMANIA.
Greece won Euro 2004
and has reached the finals of the last three tournaments it entered, reaching the quarterfinals most recently at Euro 2004.
Romania is best remembered for the team that qualified for five
straight tournaments from 1990 to 2000 and reached the quarterfinals twice and round of 16 twice.